Putting on Your Game Face

Desktop games in training

November 1, 2005

When 15-year-old John Iazzi took the controls in his first flying lesson, he astonished his instructor. Iazzi, who had never flown before, was flying to commercial standards.

Students like Iazzi are not miracles and, if you look around, you'll probably find some yourself. Iazzi and other beginning students are making use of tools that were unavailable a few years ago and that have recently come of age: home flight simulation games. Many flight instructors in general aviation are realizing that when used appropriately, games such as Flight Simulator and X-Plane are valuable teaching tools that can cut the cost of flight training. Desktop game software is even being used to prepare pilots for high-performance aircraft by airlines and the U.S. Navy.

Iazzi spent hundreds of hours in front of Microsoft's Flight Simulator long before he ever climbed into his first cockpit. He started virtual flying when he was given a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 for his thirteenth birthday. Methodical and focused, Iazzi used the flight lessons included in the software to learn how to fly in the virtual world. "The checkrides," says the earnest young man, "were to real-world standards." His patience and determination did not go unrecognized. "When I passed the commercial, my dad figured I was pretty serious."

Lucky for Iazzi, his parents appreciated his interest and arranged for him to begin flying lessons when he was 15. "I found him extraordinarily prepared," says Mike Jewell, one of Iazzi's instructors. All the instructors who flew with Iazzi considered him quite advanced in his training. On July 4, 2005, his seventeenth birthday, Iazzi took his checkride with only 53 hours of training. No one was surprised that he passed. The only thing that stopped him from getting his ticket with even fewer hours was the FAA's minimum age requirement.

"I've heard many, many stories like that over the years," says Bruce Williams, a pilot and instructor who worked on Flight Simulator for Microsoft from the days of DOS until last year. While he recognizes the benefits of the software, he cautions that it needs to be seen as one more element in an organized system of training.

"As long as you understand the limits, and don't develop bad habits, it's a great tool."

In the 1990s, says Williams, "there was a quantum leap" in the software's capabilities. Microsoft, which bought the program from its original author, opened the software up to third-party developers and an entire industry, which was partly driven by the ever-growing power of desktop computers, was born. Soon the wire-frame buildings and mountains were replaced by textured 3-D structures as developers wrote software to add detail to what had been a sterile, featureless environment broken only by the occasional runway in a flat sea of green. And a vast armada of new aircraft joined the venerable Cessna 172, giving pilots a wide selection of aircraft to fly. With the release of Flight Simulator 2000, the software incorporated a 3-D elevation grid for scenery databases. As a result, scenery detail has improved so much that VFR navigation by pilotage is now possible. Today, the detail and graphics are so advanced that they almost defy belief. One needs to see the program running on a high-end system to appreciate just how far the software has come since version 1 was released.

The first Flight Sim

Flight Simulator was conceived in the 1970s by Bruce Artwick, an electrical engineering graduate student at the University of Illinois. A pilot himself, the principles of flight became the focus of his 1975 thesis, "A Versatile Computer-Generated Dynamic Flight Display." His paper proved that the 6800 microprocessor, the processing engine driving the first desktop computers, was enough to handle the math and graphics required to create real-time flight simulation. Artwick and a friend established SubLOGIC, a company specializing in graphical software, and began to sell Flight Simulator version 1 for the Apple IIe in 1979.

In the early 1980s, a fledgling software company called Microsoft licensed the software for the new IBM personal computer. Flight Simulator quickly became a performance benchmark as manufacturers used its computing and graphics demands to establish their compatibility with the IBM standard. Today, Flight Simulator is one of the longest-selling software titles in history and is still considered a test of computing technology.

While Microsoft's product is the 600-pound gorilla of flight simulation in the gaming world, it is by no means alone. Some consider a program by Laminar Research, called X-Plane, to be superior in its aerodynamic modeling.

Austin Meyer was trying to use Microsoft's Flight Simulator for instrument proficiency checks in a Piper Archer II when he became frustrated by the program's limitations. With a degree in aeronautics, he figured he could write a better program himself. The result was X-Plane, a program that until the past few years was only available as a tool to engineers.

Today, the retail version of X-Plane is virtually identical to the same software driving FAA-certified full-motion simulators, the caveat being that the FAA insisted that some capabilities be removed. While Flight Simulator also is used in some FAA-approved applications, it's not used to model aircraft behavior.

Comparing Flight Simulator to X-Plane is like comparing Windows to Macs. Both operating systems and simulations inspire devotion bordering on religious fanaticism. With millions of copies worldwide, Flight Simulator has spawned an entire industry with a large base of add-on software from third-party developers. Current versions of Microsoft's product, which are now restricted to Windows, are generally considered superior to Laminar Research's X-Plane when it comes to the "eye candy" of terrain detail and graphics. Having seen sneak previews of upcoming scenery, I would say that X-Plane is rapidly gaining ground in the eye-candy department. X-Plane, based on engineering called Blade Element Theory, is multiplatform and generally considered to "fly" more realistically.

X-Plane also has a growing worldwide legion of followers, finding great acceptance in Europe.

Some folks avoid the X-Plane/Flight Simulator debate by using both programs. Like deciding what clothes to wear for the weather, these folks decide which program to use based on the type of flying they plan to do. For them, a VFR flight could be Flight Simulator and an IFR flight or a test flight could be X-Plane. Since each program can be had for $50 or less, having both isn't likely to break the bank.

Flight Simulator and X-Plane both have devoted users who volunteer massive amounts of time and energy to help enhance virtual flight. Besides "building" aircraft and scenery from scratch, they often incorporate satellite imagery and aerial photography to create photo-realistic, 3-D ground detail. Enhancing both programs is their ability to download and incorporate real-time weather conditions. The information can be so accurate that one user learned that a rain shower had popped up in his area when raindrops began falling on his virtual aircraft.

Throttling up your computer

To get the most out of either program one needs a fast computer, a lot of hard drive space, 1 gigabyte or more of RAM, and a beefy video card with a minimum of 64 MB of on-board RAM. When it comes to memory, the old rule of computers holds firm: You never can have too much. Most folks will need to upgrade their video card as the cards that typically ship with the computer don't have the RAM to support the addicting, mind-blowing, high-end graphics. But if you're on a budget, and can live without multiple monitors and eye candy, virtually any new off-the-shelf computer will do. You just won't be able to pick out individual streets during VFR flight.

In addition to the software, a good joystick or yoke is in order because trying to fly by keyboard is difficult. Although lots of manufacturers offer joysticks (for example, Saitek, Thrustmaster, Logitech, and Microsoft), CH Products appears to be the gold standard for serious home-simulator control devices, but you're not likely to find its products at your local computer store. Look for them on the Web and order them online or call by telephone.

CH Products offers rudder pedals, a control yoke, several joysticks, and a throttle quadrant that can be configured for twin-engine prop airplanes or four-engine jets. For basic training, a control yoke and rudder pedals are almost indispensable and will set you back about $225 depending on where you buy them. If fighter jets make you drool, then expect to fork over another $75 to $110 for a joystick. Add the Pro Throttle for about $100 for some high-G flying. If helicopters are your thing, the Pro Throttle can double as a collective. By taking advantage of multiple programmable buttons, many aircraft functions can be activated without touching the keyboard.

So for the price of two to three hours of a Cessna 172 with an instructor, a valuable training tool can be yours at home. "It's not that expensive when you compare it to rental costs," says Iazzi. Flight instructor Jewell agrees, and estimates that the software and hardware investment saved Iazzi at least $1,500 in aircraft costs. Indeed, it's this type of savings that moved the U.S. Navy to begin using Flight Simulator with its training squadrons.

"If I can cut three hours out of training time" in a high-performance aircraft, "I've just saved a big slug of money," says Mike Kennedy, a retired fighter pilot, instructor, and commander in the Navy. Kennedy was part of a program that studied how students who used home flight simulators fared in their basic flight schooling. "The guys who went through the software systematically scored much higher." By having students use the software to fly maneuvers and procedures prior to entering the cockpit, the Navy found that the quality of the training shot up because the students already knew what to expect. After using the software, students merely had to demonstrate knowledge rather than burning copious amounts of Jet-A to learn it.

It's important to point out that even with realistic graphics, a computer simulation is still a simulation. It's impossible to simulate all the nuances of flight. To provide the most training value, these programs need to be recognized for their strengths and weaknesses, and they must be approached with systematic thoroughness. "It's not just the software," says Jewell. "It's also the individual committing himself to it. It's the application of the person. They have to be driven from the inside" to get what the software can offer.

While good habits can be learned from using flight simulations, bad ones also can be learned. There are worries that only the exceptional, highly motivated, and disciplined student can truly benefit and that the average pilot at a small flight school may even be hurt by its unstructured use. Some worry that the software, if not used properly, will lead to expensive in-flight "unlearning" and frustration that cause potential pilots to drop out. But the general consensus among those interviewed for this article is that software is overwhelmingly helpful. The only comment that arose from flight instructors time and time again was about the tendency of flight-simulation veterans to try to fly by instruments even in VFR flight. "It's hard to get them to look out the window," says Raymond Meade, a CFII and FAA-designated examiner. "That's the big negative I see. But when I cover up the instruments," says Meade with a growing smile, "they get over that."

Meade, who gave Iazzi his checkride, has been a CFI for 30 years and an examiner for six years and is himself a user of flight simulators. "I like them," especially for GPS training and using multifunction displays, he says of the simulators. "And they're great training for VORs."

New pilots aren't the only ones making use of flight-simulator games. Well-established pilots with hundreds or thousands of hours will sheepishly admit to using software from the game shelves. More than one instrument-rated pilot has almost been afraid to admit in public that, when he knows he will be flying a new approach procedure, he'll fire up the computer and "fly" the approach at home. When these pilots start talking about how helpful the software can be, you can see in the faces of those listening that perhaps it's time to get a teenager to show them how to use a computer.

In preparing for this article, I contacted a friend who was my primary flight instructor back in the 1980s. After listening to him tell me about his "best-ever student" and how the student's 2,000 hours of Flight Simulator led to the quickest checkride he has ever authorized, I reminded him that he had once chided me for using an early version of the same software to learn VOR navigation. "I did?" he asked incredulously. "Well, I was wrong." But as Meade points out, the software is an "adjunct. It's part of the learning process" and not the total picture.

Tim Wright, of Richmond, is a pilot and freelance writer and photographer.